PRINT May 2018



Gregg Bordowitz, Some Styles of Masculinity, 2018. Performance view, New Museum, New York, January 19, 2018. Photo: Chloe Foussianes.

IN MY FANTASY, Gregg Bordowitz is a famous maggid—a traveling mystical Jewish preacher—in town for a rare three-night engagement at the New Museum. We gather at sunset on Friday night, that sacred turning point in the week, settle into the building’s pungently lit auditorium, which is still, after all, a basement on the Bowery, and prepare to listen.

Bordowitz’s fantasy is different from mine, but not incompatible: We are the audience of The Benjamin Zev Show, a television variety program he has invented for this performance. Bordowitz hits the stage with a false start to the Yiddish swing of the Barry Sisters (he keeps outing their preassimilation name, the Bagelman Sisters), wearing a sharp suit that nods to Jewish TV funny guys Shelley Berman and Mort Sahl, and welcomes us, a preacher among preachers: “Rabbi [Douglas] Crimp! Rabbi [Pamela] Sneed! Rabbi [Amy] Sillman! I’m glad you could make it.” Everyone’s here, even Bordowitz’s therapist, whom he mentions frequently but won’t identify. “This has been a dream of mine, or a nightmare,” he jokes. “I’m not a comedian, but I play one in the museum.”

Maybe his therapist is us?

Some Styles of Masculinity, 2018, commissioned by Johanna Burton and Sara O’Keeffe as part of the exhibition “Trigger: Gender as a Tool and a Weapon,” is a three-part lecture built around The Benjamin Zev Show. It promises to unpack the figures of the rock star, the rabbi, and the comedian, tropes of Jewish masculinity that have informed Bordowitz’s aesthetic, political, and spiritual development. Onstage, Bordowitz/Zev is flanked by tables overflowing with relevant literature. Each object is a touchstone for critical thought and an occasion for elaboration, extending his decades-long work as an artist, AIDS activist, and writer, and especially his use of persona to explore the psychic life of his politics. In Fast Trip, Long Drop, a video Bordowitz completed in 1993, when he was thirty years old, he presents us with Alter Allesman (Yiddish for “old everyman”), a talk-show guest who refuses to stick to the script by playing a hopeful sick person. Allesman shouts back at the host, “Fuck you. Fuck you! I don’t want to be yours or anyone else’s fucking model.” Eventually, seizing the means of production, Allesman looks directly into the camera and says, “I think that some of us are living with AIDS and some of us are dying from AIDS.”

Twenty-five years later we meet Benjamin Zev (the character’s moniker is Bordowitz’s Hebrew name), who is alive and has been with us decades longer than Allesman could have imagined. He grapples with what it means to be here in the wake of incalculable loss, cultural assimilation, gentrification, right-wing advancement. During the show there is droll banter, dancing, and Talmudic argumentation. Bordowitz/Zev plays us some of his favorite tracks. The sounds of Lou Reed, Jonathan Richman, and the Ramones fill the space, as do discussions of Karen Barad, Gershom Scholem, and Moses and Aaron, and recollections of 1980s East Village life and growing up on Long Island. Bordowitz interrupts himself, taking us on new tangents. He invokes songs that are never played. “I just realized that’s a style: asides. You can just do asides. It’s like going to the Second Avenue Deli and just getting latkes or pickles.”

There is an athleticism to Bordowitz.

Bordowitz’s bibliography is rigorous but unfinished, an object lesson in the virtues of deviance. He offers the humor, histories, and, most important, contradictions of his Jewishness, and asks us to do something with them. Making a distinction among the “cultural, national, and religious” aspects of Jewish identity, Bordowitz tell us, “I’m fine in the diaspora.” Like a Catskills version of Judith Butler, whose 2012 treatise Parting Ways richly theorizes genealogies of Jewishness that are opposed to Zionism and Palestinian dispossession. He gives us a fegelah with a love of the sacred texts and an allergy to nationalism.

There is an athleticism to Bordowitz. He is a masterful improviser, and it’s galvanizing to watch him think out loud in public. He is our spirited and ecumenical guide to the “worldwide reading group” of the weekly Torah portion and its applications. One minute he is glossing Abraham Joshua Heschel (admonishing us because he wants us to be informed: “Who here has read this? No one?”) and the next he is dancing to the Temptations’ “Papa Was a Rolling Stone.”He gets winded and confesses he smokes. We laugh, scandalized, like when you see your therapist at the movies, or in your audience. “If you think I’m gonna dance again, I’m not. OK, maybe a little.” The third lecture ends, much as it began, with Bordowitz anointing us, thanking us, sending us back into the world: “You’re all zaddiks. You’re all holy.”

Morgan Bassichis is a New York-based comedic performer whose work has recently been featured at Danspace project and the New Museum.